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Labour accuses Sunak of being 'slippery' over order to hand over Boris Johnson Covid WhatsApps
30 May 2023, 08:43 | Updated: 31 May 2023, 00:05
Labour has accused Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of being "slippery" in the row over whether the Government will provide the official Covid inquiry with Boris Johnson's WhatsApp messages and other documents.
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Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said the PM should "comply with the inquiry and do it to today".
"I think the prime minister looks really slippery today," he told broadcasters, "He says he wants the government to co-operate with the inquiry but the government has been withholding information the inquiry has asked for.
"One minute the government says the messages they have are immaterial; the next minute they're saying they don't exist. Which is it?"
It comes after the deadline for the government to release unredacted WhatsApp messages and diaries belonging to former PM Boris Johnson for the Covid inquiry was extended.
The Cabinet Office now has until 4pm on Thursday to hand over the former Prime Minister's WhatsApp messages as well as diary entries and notes.
A spokesman for Mr Johnson said earlier on Tuesday that he had "no objection" to sending the material to the inquiry.
He has written to the Cabinet Office to demand the government requests in writing access to his messages and notes - which he says has not happened yet.
There has so far been little sign that ministers are set to shift from the position that the government has no duty to disclose "unambiguously irrelevant" material.
The row was sparked by a legal request sent by the inquiry on April 28 for a number of materials belonging to the former prime minister between January 2020 and February 2022.
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In May, the Cabinet Office pushed back against the request, which was made under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005 and which also applies to messages from former adviser Henry Cook.
In a ruling last week, Lady Hallett rejected the argument that the inquiry's request was unlawful and claimed that the Cabinet Office had "misunderstood the breadth of the investigation".
Refusing to comply with the request would lead to a legal clash with the official inquiry, raising the possibility of ministers seeking a judicial review of the probe's powers.
Speaking shortly before the announcement of the inquiry, Mr Sunak said the "government is carefully considering its position, but it is confident in the approach that it's taking".
But Mr Streeting said Mr Sunak's "slipperiness" gave "the impression of someone who is not fully committed to transparency, openness, accountability".
It comes just weeks before the first public evidence sessions are expected to be held.
The Cabinet Office has already provided more than 55,000 documents, 24 personal witness statements and eight corporate statements to the inquiry.
But Lady Hallett, in last week's ruling, stressed that the requested documentation was of "potential relevance" to the inquiry's "lines of investigation".
She said: "I may also be required to investigate the personal commitments of ministers and other decision-makers during the time in question."
"There is, for example, well-established public concern as to the degree of attention given to the emergence of Covid-19 in early 2020 by the then Prime Minister."
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “We are fully committed to our obligations to the Covid-19 Inquiry.
"As such, the Cabinet Office alone has already provided upwards of 55,000 documents, 24 personal witness statements, eight corporate statements and extensive time and effort has gone into assisting the Inquiry fulsomely over the last 11 months.
“However, we are firmly of the view that the Inquiry does not have the power to request unambiguously irrelevant information that is beyond the scope of this investigation.
"This includes the Whatsapp messages of Government employees’ which are not about work but instead are entirely personal and relate to their private lives.”
According to the notice seeking the unredacted messages, the inquiry is requesting conversations between Mr Johnson and a host of government figures, civil servants and officials.
The list includes England's chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty, as well as then-chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.
Messages with then-foreign secretary Liz Truss and then-health secretary Matt Hancock are also requested, as well as with former top aide Dominic Cummings and then-chancellor Rishi Sunak.
The inquiry had also asked for "copies of the 24 notebooks containing contemporaneous notes made by the former prime minister" in "clean unredacted form, save only for any redactions applied for reasons of national security sensitivity".
Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper said that "failing to hand over the evidence in full, as requested by the chair of the Covid inquiry, would make a mockery of this whole process and would be yet another insult to bereaved families still waiting for justice".
"It looks like Rishi Sunak is too worried about upsetting Boris Johnson and his allies to do the right thing.
"The public deserve the whole truth about what went wrong. Vital evidence shouldn't be kept secret just to spare ministers' blushes."